A Few Thoughts on Improving the SCMS Conference

Jason Mittell's picture

Recently, I looked over the preliminary program for the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in March, so I could book travel arrangements for Seattle. Normally this would create excitement—I’ve been to most SCMS conferences since 1996, and it’s usually a great event to see old friends, meet new people, and hopefully hear some interesting research. But looking over this program caused flashbacks to last year’s conference, which was probably my least favorite ever. I left Chicago last March thinking that the status quo of SCMS conferences needed some major changes, and this year’s program seems to be more of the same, making me wonder if the current model is stuck in stone, or able to be improved with a few reforms (that I brainstorm below). Note that my perspective might be an outlier, as the survey following the last conference seems to suggest more broad satisfaction than I felt, so take my critiques as no more than one person’s opinion, but perhaps others can weigh in via the comments.

I have a personal policy of not griping about something within an organization that I wouldn’t be willing to help try to fix. So I’m not trying to suggest that other people should do their jobs better. Rather, I think we need to have a deeper discussion as an organization as to what the conference is for, who it’s meant to serve, and how to best accomplish those goals in an era where anyone can post a lecture, a paper, or a discussion online (while travel costs rise and funding dries up). I also know that I write from a position of extreme privilege: I am an SCMS “insider” who feels pretty confident that my proposals will be accepted, and I have ample funding and the familial support to be able to travel without scrambling for childcare or going into debt to attend. The hardships that the current conference model creates impact me far less than most members, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not proposing changes primarily out of self-interest, but rather sustaining broad interest in the organization.

For me, the goal of a conference is to host engaging conversations about research, teaching, and related academic issues. Last year’s Chicago conference seemed broken to me because it generally failed to generate such conversations (at least in my presence). Many of its flaws stood out in contrast to the MLA Convention I attended (for the first time) two months previously. Even though MLA has a reputation for being a massively overwhelming experience, it actually struck me as more efficient, more streamlined, and more engaging than SCMS (with the caveat that I was not involved in any job searches, so I didn’t have to endure that anxiety). Much of that efficiency stems from MLA being a larger and richer organization (thank you, style guides!), so they can afford to invest more in conference planning and can use their muscle to negotiate better hotel & facility deals. A big problem with the Chicago SCMS was the inadequate facilities at The Drake Hotel, as most of the rooms I saw sessions in were completely inappropriate to the size of the audience or poorly laid out for a panel. Maybe addressing those issues are insurmountable due to our size and resources, but there are other changes that seem more feasible, as I detail below.

The SCMS schedule has ballooned to five full days, Wednesday morning to Sunday afternoon. I don’t know anyone who wants to and is able to attend for the full schedule, as limited budgets, teaching schedules, family commitments, and mental stamina all interfere. Additionally, all 20 schedule blocks have between 20-26 concurrent sessions, meaning that there are more than 440 sessions. So even if you did marathon through the whole five days and attend a session every block (probably an unprecedented feat), you would still have seen fewer than 5% of the conference presentations. A more realistic number for people taking breaks and not staying five days is around 2%, or 8-10 sessions, which seems like a really unfortunate fraction of your field’s major event to experience, and all but guarantees that everyone’s conference experiences will be vastly different.

So the first change I would make is to limit the formal conference to four days. That would increase the number of people who can attend most of the conference, and improve the weak and erratic attendance on Wednesday and Sunday. It would also reduce the frustration that I (and presumably others) feel when seeing all of the sessions I must miss on the days I can’t manage to be at the conference. By cutting out Wednesday, it would would also minimize disruptions attendees have to deal with when their papers are scheduled for midweek, and must make arrangements to miss multiple days of teaching, parenting, etc.

The other big advantage of four days is that it would better allow for pre- or post-conference events. This was a highlight of MLA for me, as I attended a THATCamp on the Wednesday before the conference started, and participated in a Thursday morning workshop on evaluating digital projects for tenure & promotion. These were small, longform participatory events, which provided a great contrast to the more passive reception of papers typical at conferences. I also participated in a day long pre-conference workshop on media aesthetics at ICA a few years ago, which functioned as a mini-conference with more conversation and interaction (and I didn’t even stick around for the main ICA conference). Since such events are optional, attendees couldn’t get stuck with a bad schedule slot or forced to pay for many days if they cannot afford it.

Cutting a day from the conference would obviously reduce the number of presentations, which would mean that fewer people attend the conference (as most people only can get funding to attend if they are presenting). While not ideal, the conference has grown so much over the past decade that reducing attendance is not a catastrophe, and might actually yield benefits in terms of space and hotel options. My suggestion for how to be more selective while increasing the goal of engaged conversation is to eliminate the open call for papers, accepting only prepared panels and workshops, which is how MLA and many other conferences do it. This would eliminate panels that are hodgepodge of unrelated papers—like the Seattle panel called “Current Topics in Film and Media Studies” for one of many ridiculously broad examples—and hopefully inspire more cross-paper connections and conversations, as well as drawing a more engaged audience. The downside of this shift is that it might exclude more junior presenters, as they might not have the network to get involved in panels. Certainly the online bulletin board of panel ideas would be central to such assembly, and I have no doubt that the age of social media can make the panel assembly process efficient and effective (that’s how I assembled my panel on Breaking Bad for Seattle). Additionally, SCMS could stipulate that every panel or workshop must contain at least one participant not in a tenure-track position (unless there is a compelling rationale not to, like a workshop about the tenure process), ensuring that grad students, contingent faculty, and independent scholars are well represented in the conference.

As an example of how the 5-day schedule and open call paper system leads to problems, last year I was the only audience member for a panel scheduled in the first slot on Sunday morning. The panel was vaguely called “[Re]presentations,” and was clearly an open call assembly of three papers that had nothing to do with each other. I was only there to hear a (very good) paper on The Wire that led off the panel, and had to awkwardly leave to catch a plane after that presentation, officially emptying the audience. I guarantee that all three papers could have fit much more effectively into thematically-linked panels that would have likely increased attendance, not to mention that if Sunday were the fourth day of the conference, it would be more accessible to attendees.

Regardless of how many days the conference runs, it seems like another universal gripe is how similar panels are scheduled against each other. The most egregious example was last year there were two different workshops about professional use of social media focused on different subtopics, but scheduled at the same time so the only cross-session conversation was, appropriately if unfortunately, on Twitter. This problem is very complex, and I would never want the job of scheduling a conference. But one solution I’ve seen at other conferences that would help is tracking topics by room. While many panels cross topical areas, it would not be difficult to identify a dozen or so topics, and designate one room for each topic to host relevant panels throughout the whole schedule. That way an attendee mostly interested in industrial history, gender representation, or American television would be guaranteed at least one relevant panel per session, and it would reduce topical conflicts. This would not cure all conflicts, but it seems at least one step toward more clear tracking of subfields and helping to foster more sustained conference-long conversations around a designated topic. Such tracking could also mean a more prominent role for Scholarly Interest Groups, with each sponsoring a line-up of panels/workshops scheduled in succession in the same room, rather than randomly scattered about the program. (Be sure to listen to the latest episode of Aca-Media for a piece on SIGs in SCMS.)

The best sessions I saw in Chicago were workshops, where actual conversation and engaged participation were the norm. I was disappointed that the Seattle program features the same proportion of workshops as previous years, with approximately two per schedule block; when compared to 20+ panels per block, workshops are less than 10% of the conference. Increasing the number of workshops seems like a simple and effective way to encourage more dialogue and engagement, especially since the model of paper presentation seems less and less relevant in an era when people self-publish works in progress online. Workshops also allow for more participants, so they could absorb many of the presenters who might find it harder to get a paper accepted without the open-call option, and can satisfy institutional funding requirements that attendees be presenting at a conference.

My final recommendations involve the use of digital media, which has been an ironic weakness of SCMS for years. One bit of progress is already happening—after a successful test drive of live-streaming two workshops in Chicago, SCMS is attempting to live-stream as many workshops as technologically feasible in Seattle, which also includes archiving the videos for later access. I understand why many people are not comfortable live-streaming or videoing research presentations, but I would love to see that option as well (while noting that doing such videoing requires costly equipment and labor, so it’s not a simple plan by any means).

But an easier technological shift seems most transformative: publish paper, panel and workshop abstracts online. Right now, all that we have to navigate the crowded, overscheduled conference are one-line paper titles in the context of panel titles. In my own panel on Breaking Bad, Sean O’Sullivan is giving a paper called “The Inevitable and the Surprise”—do you have any idea what it is about? I do, because I read his abstract, but if I hadn’t, I would choose to attend his paper solely on Sean’s reputation (which is quite strong, as he usually delivers great presentations), not because of my interest in his vague title. Going to panels based on presenter reputation makes the field more hierarchical, and does little to disseminate ideas or provoke conversation. We all write expanded abstracts for our papers, as well as contextual material for panels and workshops—why should this writing be visible only to the program committee? Conferences I’ve been to that include abstracts (or even full papers) on the conference website increase the likelihood that I will see work that I am interested in, and avoid work that I am not (but whose title confounds my judgment). I know that this idea has been floated to SCMS leadership before, but has been rejected; the reason I heard for this (second-hand, so it very well could be misconstrued) is that not everyone would feel comfortable putting their more detailed ideas out in public via the website. As anyone reading this site knows, that reluctance to share research in-progress is completely foreign to me, so if that really is the rationale for keeping these abstracts in a lockbox, I’d argue strongly against it. But maybe there are other good reasons not to share abstracts? (Please share them and other objections in the comments.)

Anyway, I offer these thoughts to provoke conversation, not (just) to gripe and complain about the status quo. I care enough about SCMS as to want it to be better, and maybe some of these ideas could help. Or maybe I’ll have such a great experience in Seattle that I’ll recant these objections. I’ll be there from Wednesday night until my Sunday morning workshop, effectively spending around $1,400 to miss at least 30% of the conference. Hope to see many of you there!

Filed under: Academia, Conferences, Media Studies, Not Quite TV Tagged: scms

Jason Mittell

Publication date (from feed): 

Wed, 15 Jan 2014 02:06:26 +0000